Lowly culvert blocks progress on storied Lackawanna 'cutoff'

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Rarely was a railroad as gold-plated as the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western’s famed Lackawanna Cutoff, built in 1911 to give trains a high-speed shortcut into northeastern New Jersey from the Delaware Water Gap.

In an era when the Lackawanna spared no expense, the Cutoff offered 28.5 miles of generous clearances, huge fills, and two giant viaducts. The massive project cut 11 miles off DL&W’s old route in an era when passenger trains competed on the basis of schedule. In its day, it was known as a “super railroad.”

Now, part of that super railroad is poised to come back to life, but for one small obstacle: a concrete culvert on a farm.

A recent news story in the daily New Jersey Herald of Newton, N.J., reports that NJ Transit’s plan to reopen the easternmost eight miles of the Cutoff from Port Morris Junction to Andover are on hold because of a landowner’s resistance to replacing a culvert.

The land in question is called Hudson Farm West, a sprawling operation located near the proposed Andover station and owned by IAT Reinsurance Co., Ltd., led by pro-conservation businessman Peter Kellogg.

As the Herald reports, both NJ Transit and the station’s Department of Environmental Protection insist the culvert should be replaced because it would be inadequate to handle the potential torrent of a 100-year flood, threatening not only the station but also other surrounding property.

Meanwhile, the landowner's attorney, John Ursin told the newspaper “The culvert is in good shape.” The landowners reportedly are wary of farmland flooding that could be caused by a new, larger culvert.

The standoff threatens one of NJ Transit’s most ambitious projects. The agency has committed $61 million to the opening of service to Andover and has a considerable amount of track and other equipment stored at Port Morris to begin the project.

The Cutoff has a rich history. After decades of service to DL&W and successor Erie-Lackawanna, the Cutoff became the property of Conrail, which gradually downgraded the line until all service was abandoned in January 1979. The track was pulled up in 1984 amid much public protest.

A number of attempts to redevelop the Cutoff were unsuccessful until 1989, when state voters approved a $25 million bond issue to acquire the right of way. NJ Transit’s ultimate plan is to reopen the Cutoff the remaining 20-plus miles to Slateford Junction in Pennsylvania, on the Delaware Water Gap, offering a high-speed commuter alternative to parallel Interstate 80.

The Herald’s story suggest that those grander plans are part of what has drawn the landowner’s opposition, representing opponents’ fears of restored freight service on the line, including garbage trains out of the New York City region headed for landfills in Pennsylvania.

NJ Transit supporters deny that such freight service is part of the long-term plan, citing inadequate clearances for today’s higher-volume freight cars.

So, for now, the future of the Cutoff has come down to the culvert at Hudson Farm. The three key parties in the dispute — NJ Transit, the state, and Hudson Farm — are continuing to negotiate, reports the Herald. And NJ Transit is proceeding with plans to begin building the Andover station in the fall of 2018.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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